By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
SAN ANTONIO, April 7 -- The same blemish remained with Memphis all season long, even as the Tigers won more games than any men's college basketball team ever had before. They were fast. They were skilled. They were a juggernaut. But, their critics kept reminding the college basketball world, they would lose in the NCAA tournament anyway, because of what they were not: capable, clutch free throw shooters.
Memphis spent the past two weeks proving its doubters wrong, then spent the most important moments of its season proving them right. The Tigers missed four of their final five free throws in the final 1 minute 15 seconds of regulation, the only culprit they could blame for squandering a nine-point in the final 2:12 and losing the national championship game, 75-68, to Kansas in overtime.
Memphis remained staunch all season long it would make its free throws when they counted. In the end, when it mattered most, the Tigers did not.
"It came back and bit us," guard Chris Douglas-Roberts said. "We missed them at a crucial time. I guess you can boil it down to the free throws."
For the game, Memphis made 12 of 19, a departure from its recent sure shooting. Memphis had made 80.9 percent of its free throws during its past three games. Douglas-Roberts and point guard Derrick Rose, Memphis's two best free throw shooters, combined to make 58 of 67 (86.6 percent) during that span.
So when Kansas Coach Bill Self ordered his players to start fouling Memphis players with roughly 2 1/2 minutes left in regulation, an unusually early point, the Tigers welcomed the challenge. Robert Dozier made two foul shots with 2:12 remaining to put Memphis ahead, 60-51. Douglas-Roberts made a pair less than 33 seconds later, maintaining a comfortable, six-point lead for Memphis.
Then, suddenly, the Tigers wilted at the line. Most cruelly, the Tigers' most-trusted clutch performer, Douglas-Roberts, missed three consecutive foul shots in the torturous -- and, for Memphis, soon-to-be infamous -- 1:15. Douglas-Roberts, as he always does, dribbled the ball as he tapped the tattoo of Psalms 37:1-3 on his upper right arm before he shot. Both shots hit softly on the rim and rolled off, short and inches to the right.
"I really can't explain why," Douglas-Roberts said. "When you play basketball, you can't describe things like that. I just missed them."
Rose, Memphis's only other consistently strong free throw shooter, had his chance to seal the game with 10 seconds remaining and Memphis up, 62-60. The first of his free throws, though, bounced all over the rim before hurtling out.
He made the next, but had one more foul shot not fallen off the side of the rim or curled around the rim and out, the high-arcing three-pointer Mario Chalmers made with 2.1 seconds remaining would have been purely cosmetic. Instead, the national championship game headed to overtime as the Tigers reeled.
"They were putting us on the line, and we were trying to make them," Rose said. "We just didn't."
For an entire season, Memphis denied its poor shooting from the foul line would be its demise. The habit seemed hard to break, even during the painful minutes after the Tigers' season concluded. Sitting next to Douglas-Roberts on the postgame podium as he fielded a question about the misses, Rose muttered, "It ain't the free throws."
Sometime -- weeks, months or years from now -- Rose will recollect what may have been the final game of his college career and realize he was wrong. In the end, it was the free throws.